The rhetoric of anti-Catholicism, whether its sources are Protestant or secular, has always insisted that the church of Rome is the enemy of what you might call healthy sexuality. This rhetorical trope has persisted despite radical redefinitions of what healthy sexuality means; one sexual culture overthrows another, but Catholicism remains eternally condemned.
Thus in a 19th-century context, where healthy sexuality meant a large patriarchal family with the wife as the angel in the home, anti-Catholic polemicists were obsessed with Catholicism’s nuns — these women who mysteriously refused husbands and childbearing, and who were therefore presumed to be prisoners in gothic convents, victims of predatory priests.
Then a little later, when the apostles of sexual health were Victorian “muscular Christians” worried about moral deviance, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too hospitable to homosexuality — too effete, too decadent, too Oscar Wildean even before Wilde’s deathbed conversion.
Then later still, when sexual health meant the white-American, two-kid nuclear family, the problem with Catholicism was that it was too obsessed with heterosexual procreation, too inclined to overpopulate the world with kids.
And now, in our own age of sexual individualism, Catholicism is mostly just accused of a repressive cruelty, of denying people — and especially its celibacy-burdened priests — the sexual fulfilment that every human being needs.
The mix of change and consistency in anti-Catholic arguments came to mind while I was reading “In the Closet of the Vatican,” a purported exposé of homosexuality among high churchmen released to coincide with the church’s summit on clergy sexual abuse. The book — written by a gay, nonbelieving French journalist, Frédéric Martel — makes a simple argument in an florid, repetitious style: The prevalence of gay liaisons in the Vatican means that clerical celibacy is a failure and a fraud, as unnatural and damaging as an earlier moral consensus believed homosexuality to be.
The style of Martel’s account is fascinating because it so resembles the old Protestant critique of Catholic decadence. Instead of a tough-guy Calvinist proclaiming that Catholicism’s gilt and incense makes men gay, it’s a gay atheist claiming that the gays use Catholicism’s gilt and incense to decorate the world’s most lavish closet. Instead of celibacy making men deviant, celibacy is the deviance, and open homosexuality the cure. Celibacy used to offend family-values conservatism; now it offends equally against the opposite spirit.
The book is quite bad; too many of its attempted outings rely on the supposed infallibility of Martel’s gaydar. And yet anyone who knows anything about the Vatican knows that some of the book’s gossip is simply true — just as the other critiques of Catholicism have some correspondence to reality.
The church’s teaching that gay sex is sinful has clearly coexisted with and encouraged powerful gay subcultures in the priesthood. Priests really have seduced and abused nuns, and still do today. Celibate men are not more likely to be predators (as one would hope the #MeToo era has decisively established), but particular kinds of predation have flourished in the priesthood, and the worst of that predation looks like an anti-Catholic polemic brought to life.
So if Catholics look at these changing-yet-recurring critiques of the church and see only bigotry, they would be making a grave mistake. A critic of the church can be quicker to see problems than a believer, and when critiques are dismissed just because they partake of anti-Catholic stereotypes — well, you get the disgraceful way the church treated allegations of clerical sex abuse for many years.
But at the same time, the way the “healthy sexuality” supposedly available outside the church seems to change with every generation offers a reason to be sceptical that all Catholic ills would vanish if Rome only ceased making “unnatural” demands like celibacy and chastity.
The sexual ethic on offer in our own era should make Catholics particularly sceptical. That ethic regards celibacy as unrealistic while offering porn and sex robots to ease frustrations created by its failure to pair men and women off. It pities Catholic priests as repressed and miserable (some are; in general they are not) even as its own cultural order seeds a vast social experiment in growing old alone. It disdains large families while it fails to reproduce itself. It treats any acknowledgment of male-female differences as reactionary while constructing an architecture of sexual identities whose complexities would daunt a medieval schoolman.
In the name of this not-obviously-enlightened alternative, Catholicism is constantly asked to “reform” away practices that are there because they connect directly to the New Testament — in the case of celibacy, to Jesus’ own example and his hard words for anyone making an idol of family life.
This seems like a bad bargain, no matter how much hypocrisy there may be in Rome.
That clerical celibacy doesn’t guarantee asceticism is obvious, any more than attending Mass guarantees prayerfulness (trust me on that one). But it preserves the call even when the system is corrupted. And to lose that call, in this era of scandal and unfinished purgation, could easily leave only the corruption, undiluted and unchecked.
© 2019 New York Times News Service